Phases of the Game

In order to get better at enduring (life) I’ve been trying to break down the various mental phases of any run/ride/long hike. Somehow being able to identify where my head is helps me manage my fragile state as I bounce along the trail toward I don’t know what. Today, it occurred to me that these also might be the phases of marriage, which is, itself, a sort of endurance event. Apply as you find useful.

Phase One – Novelty

I’m not sure what happens in those shimmering moments between not moving and starting to move, but it’s something. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought to myself or even said out loud, “OK, I guess we’re going now.”

The novelty phase is your mind coming to terms with being in motion. Often this stage is occupied with various damage assessments coming back from your extremities. Right ankle is sore. Left Achilles. Dull ache in back. Hip flexors? Yeah. Both sides. My mental strategy here is mainly denial, and/or a blind hope that whatever hurts will “settle down” as we go.

Phase Two – Boredom

Once I’ve settled into the idea that I’m doing work and my body has more or less accepted that it’s going to happen no matter what electrical impulses it’s sending back up my jangled nerves, I get bored. That sounds bad, but it’s really fine. It means I’m comfortable.

What has probably happened is that I’ve begun to think about the distance I plan to cover and cottoned onto the fact that it’s going to take a while. This is akin to the part of a flight right after takeoff. “OK,” you think, “we’re flying. Just 6 hours to kill now. When do I get peanuts?”

Phase Three – Flow

In rare cases, you proceed directly from Phase One to Phase Three, but I’m mostly not that lucky. As an older body, I don’t normally approach flow until I’m fully warmed up, and that can take an hour some days. Up to that point, I’m bored.

Flow, however, is the reason I get off the couch. It’s that magical place where you’re floating along, the run or ride has ceased to be an event and has resolved itself into this beautiful moment-to-moment awareness of your capability. If you’re running, it’s effortless. If you’re riding, you feel powerful, and your timing is spot on. Everything is working the way you dreamed it would. It’s mind-altering, if you’re lucky.

Phase Four – Resource Management

Uh oh. We got tired. All that flow sapped our reserves, the over ripe banana we bolted on our way out the door, the half cup of coffee. The body is threatening not to shift over to fat-burning, and you’re getting signals that blood sugar and salt levels are running low, fast. You begin to think very hard about your pace while guessing at the actual distance to the car/house/finish line/pond. Resource management can be a fun and interesting part of this game, unless it leads to Phase Five.

I actually think Resource Management is a good thing to practice, and of course anyone looking to expand their range probably has to go through this phase repeatedly, trialing and erroring, and hopefully not ending up at Phase Five too often.

Phase Five – Survival

In survival mode, you are willing yourself to overcome your failures of resource management. Survival can be fun too, but it’s always Type 2 fun, the sort you feel once it’s over and you’ve recovered. Survival mode sometimes arrives with a bonk, the empty sugar tank that causes everything to feel hard, a feeling the French describe as “going to meet the man with the hammer.” Mentally tough people will keep their head straight during Survival and somehow manage to get themselves where they’re going. A mercifully placed convenience store can lead you out of Survival, back into Resource Management.

No one looks for Survival Mode, even if they say they’re going out to test their limits. What they really want is to succeed at Resource Management. Too much time in Survival is a sign of actual, pathological masochism, or perhaps a cry for help.


Getting familiar with all the things that are going to happen to me and my body and my mind as I move through the world is super helpful. For example, if I can identify that I’m feeling bored, I can try to move forward by noticing the area I’m moving through more closely, or I can remind myself that endurance takes a long time and that patience is one of the benefits I’m there to gain. If I find myself suddenly in Resource Management, I can figure out what fuel I have left with me in food and water and then do some reflecting on whether it’s too late to add calories to get work back out.

Mostly, what I’m trying to do as I go along is convince myself I’m ok, or I’m going to be ok. That magic trick starts with understanding exactly where I am at any given moment.

Being outside for extended periods of time is one of my favorite projects. It’s the one I’m working on all the time, but of course, life is also a project, an endless endurance event. The phases above map pretty well to my days, not just my rides, and the conclusions I draw from identifying where I am are helpful in keeping the whole rickety mess moving forward, with the one telling difference being that, in life, I can just lay down and stop if I need to. If/when that happens on the trail, I have entered a new phase, probably one that involves a helicopter, or at least a van with a siren on the roof.

Join the conversation
  1. TominAlbany says

    Just don’t fail survivial.
    In any of your analogies…

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More